- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

ROME Mohammed Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old former king of Afghanistan, moves around his Italian villa in a slow but deliberate shuffle.
Bent-over posture and poor eyesight have taken hold of him during his almost 30 years of exile near Rome, where he took up residence after his government was overthrown while he was in Italy on vacation. He never set foot in his country again.
Today, precarious hopes for stability in Afghanistan, if and when its hard-line Taliban rulers are toppled, almost surely rest on the aged monarch's frail shoulders.
Still, whispers of concern about the former king's health and his questionable power to persuade enough of the country's many ethnic groups to work together cast doubt on the role he can play.
Even in his prime, the king was seen as an uninspiring leader.
The most glowing accounts of his 40-year reign can point only to some minor democratic reforms, a small array of public works projects in and near Kabul, the Afghan capital, and to relative tranquility within the country's borders.
But most commentators at the time also viewed the king as someone who only occasionally focused on the country his family had ruled since 1761. Instead, he was criticized at the time for traveling the world and leaving the day-to-day business of government to the country's various tribes to govern themselves.
While the king was visiting Italy in the summer of 1973, his government was dramatically overthrown in a bloodless palace coup led by his cousin, Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, who had been the king's secretary of state.
The king abdicated almost immediately, and he has since lived in a luxurious and secluded villa just outside Rome, all but forgotten until the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the United States.
"By all accounts and in most ways, Mr. Zahir Shah was always an unexceptional leader," said Giuliano Catagna, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs at Rome's Catholic University. "But people who lived in Afghanistan then look back now with nostalgia, because the country has suffered through so much since that time."
Mr. Zahir Shah was groomed to be king almost from birth. He was educated in Kabul and Paris, and speaks fluent English, Italian, French, Farsi and Pashtu, the language spoken by the dominant Pashtun tribe to which he belongs.
When his father was assassinated in 1933, the 19-year-old took Afghanistan's crown amid great fanfare and optimism, but the country's economy never developed as hoped.
Alternating between U.S. and Soviet aid, King Zahir Shah championed some road building and agricultural-development projects, and he helped write a 1963 constitution that allowed limited elected representation.
But most parts of the country suffered from increasing poverty and as discontent grew, the seeds for Mr. Daoud Khan's coup were laid.
From that point on, the country's lot only worsened. Mr. Daoud Khan was killed during a coup five years later, and under the following government U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs was slain in a botched kidnapping scheme.
Ten years of warfare against the Soviet Union starting in 1979 ravaged a country already suffering the effects of poverty, drought and famine.
Finally, in 1996, the Taliban toppled the government that surfaced in the wake of the Soviet pullout the remnants of which form the Northern Alliance.
The country barred almost all foreigners and looked increasingly inward. The Taliban's harboring of Osama bin Laden, the man thought to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 destruction of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, is only the most visible of the Taliban's anti-Western policies.
"The history of Afghanistan from 1973 onwards transformed a country that was among the poorest into one almost without precedent in its horrors," Mr. Catagna said.
Officials who work with the king in Rome say he has no desire to restore the monarchy, but the United States and its allies consider him perhaps the one man who can command a wide-enough support base to help establish a stable government in Kabul.
According to one high-level Italian official who has attended some of the meetings between King Zahir Shah and diplomats from the United States and other allied nations, speculation is that without him, establishing a government acceptable to a wide range of Afghans would be nearly impossible.

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